Dharma, religion and morality in the Mahabharata
“Dharma is subtle and to be discerned [only] by careful thinking”[Bhīṣma to Draupadi in the Mahabharata, Sabhā Parvan 2-67-46]
Religion is connected with morality and ethics in complex ways, not always easy to summarize. Religious literature and religious practice can provide a framework for moral deliberation and ethical action, and hence engaging deeply with religious texts can serve to strengthen the moral character of our actions. However, I would perhaps hesitate to claim that religious people are more moral on average than non-religious people.
Characters in religious literature frequently provide us with paradigms or moral exemplars as didactic devices to guide our actions. As noted in the Sāhitya-darpaṇa, the actions of Rāma in the Rāmāyaṇa is one such paradigm. The figure of Jesus in the Christian New Testament and the characters in the parables provide us with inspirational examples that have guided the moral lives of Christians over a very long time.
In fact, the connection between religion and morality is already present in the Book of Genesis, where Adam and Eve are faced with a moral dilemma, whether or not to obey the instruction of God not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, but are seemingly not equipped with the intellectual tools to make a properly moral decision, as the knowledge of good and evil would be the basis for the moral reasoning that would be required.
The Mahabharata likewise engages deeply with themes of morality yet it is a rather different type of religious work from many others. Sometimes classed as a work of epic literature, alongside works such as the Iliad and the Odyssey, it tells the story of an incredibly destructive war, as well as the events leading up to it, and the aftermath of the war. As the battle progresses, we witness a steady breakdown in the moral norms that would ordinarily govern battle.
A premonition of this breakdown in morality is already seen in the events leading up to the battle. The circumstances leading to the marriage of the five Pāṇḍava brothers to a single bride Draupadi can probably be understood not so much as praise of polyandry but rather an indication that we have moved into a moral context that is unprecedented. The Pāṇḍavas are also forced to leave the city and wander in exile in the forests in Book One and Book Three, which also provides the suggestion of leaving the known world to confront the realm of unknown and possibly dangerous forces, with which the forest has been associated with since at least the time of the Vedas. The fifth chapter of the Mahabharata describes a series of diplomatic failures in resolving the tension that will now lead to devastating war.
Dharma, in this context corresponding to morality, is a central concern in the famous ‘game of dice’ episode in the Mahabharata. As Yudhisthira wagers and loses everything including the freedom of himself, his brothers and their wife, in the game of dice, all present are acutely aware that their own scope for making any intervention in the events that unfold is severely constrained by dharma. The younger brothers of Yudhisthira feel compelled to remain silent and acquiesce in the decisions taken by their brothers. Similarly, the various dignitaries seated in the assembly hall also feel unable to speak up as they owe allegiance to Duryodhana.
Draupadi however is able to find a way to make her voice heard not in opposition to Dharma but as an expression of Dharma. When Yudhisthira stakes and loses the life of Draupadi too in the gambling match, Draupadi’s question for him is –
“Did you lose yourself first or me?”
Draupadi’s question is based on of whether Yudhisthira had the standing to stake her life in the gambling match, given that he had already staked and lost his own life and hence had no agency to control property at that point. Crucially, it is framed in terms of dharma –
“The great soul [Yudhisthira], son of Dharma, is devoted to Dharma. Dharma is subtle and to be discerned [only] by careful thinking.”
In a celebrated speech to the assembly complaining against the violation done to her and her husbands, she demands an answer to that question. In his response to Draupadi, Bhishma again references the centrality of dharma –
“Dear lady, because dharma is subtle, I cannot properly investigate this question of yours.”
Ultimately no answer is ever provided to Draupadi’s question. This appears to be just one striking example of how the situation develops in such a way that the norms that should govern action seem to be no longer easy or even possible to discern. Again it seems that we are in uncharted territory as far as morality and ethical conduct are concerned. This seems to indicate that human beings, and even the most exalted amongst us, are ultimately destined to fail to achieve any kind of perfection in our ethical and social lives despite our most sincere and most concerted efforts.
The same aspect of the human condition seems to be symbolically acknowledged in Genesis with the idea of original sin. However, the story of Adam and Eve there suggests an original state of perfection from which we have fallen, which is absent from the Indian tradition and indeed perhaps not consonant with what we know about human nature and its evolution.
Indeed, the message of the Mahabharata goes further in that that this type of inevitable failure of humanity cannot be rectified or remedied even with the intervention of divine deliberation and divine action. As a divine figure, Krishna is able to provide interventions into the narrative with a power and a sense of foresight that go beyond that possessed by any human actor. Yet even the possibilities for divine intervention are bound by many constraints and, at least in this extraordinary context, can only with difficulty achieve the marginal changes that are required to tip the balance of the battle in favour of the Pāṇḍavas. Yet even so, this intervention is unable to prevent the tragic outcome of an almost overwhelming tally of death and the complete destruction of everything that was being fought over.
Krishna’s first serious attempt to intervene comes in the above-mentioned diplomatic effort to avert war by means of seeking some kind of reconciliation or treaty between the two antagonistic parties, the Kauravas and the Pāṇḍavas. As the battle goes on, we witness a steady breakdown in the ethical code of battle in many actions taken by both sides. On the side of the Pāṇḍavas, it is Krishna’s morally questionable advice that enables the Pāṇḍavas to vanquish three successive commanders of the Kaurava army, Bhishma, Drona and Karna, in turn, leading them ultimately to a kind of victory. Significantly, Krishna himself admits that his advice and actions in the battle are not on a morally sound footing, when talking with Gāndhāri at the end of the war.
Bhishma is killed by Arjuna fights while hiding behind Śikhandi, whom Bhishma will not attack and towards whom Bhishma will not aim any weapons. Drona is killed by Yuddhishtira, who despite being the ‘king of dharma’ and ‘son of dharma’, intentionally misleads Drona into believing that his own son has just been killed in battle, plunging him into a state of grief which impairs his ability to fight back effectively. Karna is forced to continue fighting against Arjuna even when his chariot gets stuck in mud, and is finally killed while trying to pull the wheel of his chariot out from the mud.
As for the many atrocities committed on the Kaurava side against the Pāṇḍavas, one of the most significant and shocking single moments is when Abhimanyu, son of Subhadrā and Arjuna, is lured into the military formation known as Chakravyuha or Padmavyuha from which he cannot subsequently escape. The shape of this formation is that of a labyrinth or maze, with each soldier precisely positioned to pull the intended victim is steadily manoeuvred deeper into the formation with no easy opportunity to exit. This perhaps symbolises the way in which events have entered a vicious spiral from which there is no turning back and no possible good outcome, either through the best efforts of the most outstanding humans, or through the divine interventions into the situation by Krishna. As such, events in the Mahabharata have a genuinely tragic depth and also resonate at the level of cosmic significance.